»

Visiting The National Museum of African American History & Culture: My Disabled Blerd Thoughts

Leave a Comment
14522796_10100921285354016_8664767600768667226_n

Me in front of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture sign, with the building in the background.

It is no secret how big of a disabled blerd (black nerd) I am, and my love for anything related to Black culture and history.  During my hiatus from the blog, I took a much-needed trip to Maryland, and over that week and a half, visited the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened late September.  I went to the Museum with two of my awesome Black disabled advocates, and the three of us set out to explore the Museum that was for us, and has been the major talk within our community.

Being a huge history nerd in general, and African American history fanatic specifically, my heart could not be still as I soaked in all of the magnificence of this place.  There was so much to view and read that it was almost overwhelming – where does one actually start in understanding the plight of a resilient, creative, and steadfast people, my people?  One of the reasons I minored in African American Studies in college was so that I could learn about my history that went beyond the 28 days in February.  The multi-leveled museum housed stories, names, places, and events that I did not know, as well as those that I did.  It was the true learning space for those who were either new to black history or had significant knowledge of it.  

14657456_10100921285658406_5197310647666673702_n

As a SC native, this quote was one that had to be captured: “Carolina looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.” – Samuel Dyssli, 1737

The architectural design alone took my breath away.  I am not verse in building design by any means, but to see this building up close was stunning.  The details of the building and the interior layout were skillfully done; there is no denying how important the structural and interior makeup were to the storytelling of the history of a powerful people.  Of course the Museum possessed that “newness” gleam from being open for only a couple of weeks when I visited, but there was a feeling that captivated me when I set wheel on the grounds and entered it.  

Image of the display honoring Rosa Parks. Display has a plaque that discusses her activism, and one of her dresses she wore.

Image of the display honoring Rosa Parks. Display has a plaque that discusses her activism, and one of her dresses she wore.

With so much history to take in, it was hard to figure out where to begin.  We decided to start in the “belly of the beast,“ as I have heard the basement level called that housed the history of slavery.  To walk/roll our way across the journey of life in Africa to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and seeing/reading/hearing the grotesque treatment of African slaves was an emotional one.  It is one thing to read of these atrocities, as I have done; it is quite another to view artifacts and artwork collected by the Museum of that time period.  Seeing the displays made everything that I knew and was learning at that moment come alive – my ancestors endured an experience that I can never fully understand, or fathom how they even survived it.  Though we always focus on the brutalness of slavery, I also appreciated the humanness shared as well, in regards to slave life and customs created that still influences us today.  I am always amazed at the mixed bag of emotions I feel when I visit museums like NMAAHC, where the tone and feelings I have can change by simply being in front of a portrait or hearing the stories shared for a particular exhibit.  Those feelings reminded me that history is indeed convoluted, as it is today with the history we are currently living in.  

The exhibit that made my heart drop was the one for Emmett Till.  There was a deep sense of heaviness there; I do not recall hearing much dialogue in that section as I did the other parts we looked at.  It displayed Emmett’s and his mother’s life, and what transpired from his death for his mother and the nation.  To see images, quotes, and readings displayed throughout that exhibit were profound; however, what made me pause hard was seeing the actual casket Emmett was buried in.  What struck me was how small the casket was – Emmett was only 14 years old.  14 years old – a child killed by racists, a child taken so viciously from his mother, a child who had his whole life awaiting him.  Emmett’s murder is one of the most prominent moments of the Civil Rights Movement, and seeing his casket made me think of all the mothers who have had to bury their children because of hate, both past and present.  Seeing that casket made me think of Tamir Rice, who was only 12 years old when he was killed by police, and other children we know and may never know who have died in our communities because of hate and racism.  The one thing I did appreciate was the protectiveness the Museum had for the display – there were signs that read “no photography” on both sides of the casket and a museum attendant was there to ensure that we respected that sign.  Though we live in a “selfie” world, we must use common sense when we see such moving displays like that one, and protect such emotionally-charged moments in history from being exploited selfishly.  

The Importance of Inclusion & Accessibility Regarding Disability:  My Observations

Though I absolutely loved everything about the museum, I do have two critiques that are disability-related:  the lack of Black disability history seen, and accessibility barriers I encountered as a wheelchair user.  Though historical Black disabled figures like Harriet Tubman was seen, the failure to include their disability in their narratives were not lost on myself or my fellow advocates.  This erasure was yet another reminder that our community (Black community) overlooks disability, and that lack of visibility is harmful to the storytelling of those of us who have disabilities and are proudly disabled.  The invisibility, for me, was not surprising, but it was deeply disappointing that the Black disabled experience is not integrated as fully as it should be within a museum that was founded to capture the Black experience in America.  

As a wheelchair user and someone who is a short/little person, some of the displays were hard to view and read that were either too high for my sitting level or were on tables that I had to lean over to see/read better.  Accessibility must always be at the forefront when we establish public spaces like museums, and these barriers did hinder my ability to fully engage with displays as I had liked.  Of course I am thankful (and very lucky!) to have been with my compadres who read or pointed out to me items that I could not access, but it made me wonder how wheelchair users who decided to tour the museum alone would fair.  Also, being someone who is hard of hearing (HoH), some of the music and voiceovers in certain exhibits did not have written descriptions for them.  Though I could hear the sounds fine because I wear hearing aids, I thought about those who may be deaf or have hearing loss that is more progressive than my own, and them missing out on those experiences because of their deaf/HoH status.  Though my observations and personal experience may seem minute to some, it is significant to those of us with disabilities in feeling truly included in spaces like this.  Accessibility + inclusion can never be forgotten or dismissed.  

Final Thoughts

Though I spent close to three hours in the Museum and did not get to see everything (it is impossible to see everything in one visit, believe me), I had to share my thoughts about it for the blog.  I do plan to visit the museum again, especially since I aim to move to the D.C. area next year.  It was a special experience to visit a museum that was created for my people, and my disabled blerd heart is still very full from it all.  

14595664_10100921286072576_5127830454690605531_n

Image of the words “Black is Beautiful” in gold font. Always must be reminded of this truth.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

Leave a Reply